NSK Driving New Frontiers in Robotics — bringing useful robots closer to daily life

 

For many years, the field of robotics has been largely focused on manufacturing applications. Automated guided vehicles (AGVs), articulated robotic arms, SCARA, and many other kinds of robots are being used to increase industrial efficiency and product quality, but these robots are limited to the factory floor far from the public eye. In contrast, today, with AI and machine learning beginning to show promise in real world applications, efforts are ramping up to develop mobile robots and humanoid robot hardware that can perform useful tasks in close proximity to people. Read on to learn about NSK’s new solution ideal for robots in hospitals, offices, libraries, and other public spaces.


Profile


Satoshi Ozaki

Group Manager
Technology Development Department 1
New Field Products Development Center


Kei Kondo
Manager
Technology Development Department 1
New Field Products Development Center


Koki Hongo
Technology Development Department 1
New Field Products Development Center

 


Determining the Unique Value NSK Can Offer in the Robotics Field

The direct drive wheel unit that NSK has just developed applies the technology behind Megatorque Motors™, NSK’s high-performance direct drive motors with an impressive track record. The new unit focuses on applying that technology to carry and move objects, but so quietly that the robots can operate in close proximity to people. What makes this wheel unit special is its backdrivability, which makes it easy to move the unit manually in the event of problems, and its ease of control, delivered by a newly developed dedicated driver. It is also extremely quiet, so it can be used without disturbing people in quiet environments.

Satoshi Previously, our department developed the Lighbot™, a guide robot with indoor navigation and obstacle avoidance that guides people with visual impairments and elderly people in hospitals. When we thought about robots working in close proximity to people, we saw that the major obstacle is the noise they make. No matter how impressive its performance, a robot is not going to be very popular if it makes a lot of noise when it moves. Using Lighbot in a wide range of locations showed us that an extremely quiet robot has amazing potential, and that’s what encouraged us to develop this wheel unit.

Kei AGVs are already used at factories where heavy loads are moved around, so the competition is really intense. But at the same time, machines that are extremely quiet — NSK’s strength — make ideal robots for guiding people around hospitals, libraries, and hotels, and for carrying things. So with this in mind, we started trial production in 2016 and gradually finalized the concept, as well as the functions and specifications that would be required.

Koki The direct drive wheel unit was my first big project after joining NSK. When I joined the company, I saw Lighbot and realized that I wanted to be involved in robotics someday, so I was really surprised when I got to participate in this project right off the bat.

Satoshi The field of robotics has major potential. This direct drive wheel unit project was driven by the desire to see how far NSK could go with robotics.

Project Concept: “Service,” Not Product

The direct drive wheel unit was born of the ambition to create a new robotics market by making the most of technology NSK had already developed. It was a new challenge for NSK on both the technical side and the marketing side.

Robots incorporating the direct drive wheel unit. Very quiet, ideal for use in hospitals and libraries.

Satoshi The direct drive wheel unit requires a broad range of basic technologies, such as mechatronics, controls and software, so the process was really closer to system development. We allocated a significant development budget, staff, and other resources to this project, so we really had to lay out a clear vision to appeal to potential customers and partners — it was crucial to clearly convey the concept and the way we envisioned the unit being used.

Kei NSK’s foundational business is developing and manufacturing bearings and precision parts. NSK has always been good at identifying customer needs and issues and then creating products that meet demand. However, there were no specific customers looking for direct drive wheel units when we started the project, so we had to envision and propose how it would be used. It was less like making a product than envisioning the total set of services it would perform — the objective of the development, the target users and usage methods — and shaping the project from there. When developing this product, we went to places like libraries and hospitals and talked to the people who work there. What we learned was that a robot would not be adopted widely just because it’s “convenient.” If everyone involved isn’t happy — and that means managers and the people recharging the robot as well as the people working on site and using the robot — they won’t continue using a service robot. That’s why it was really important that we had a clear image of the kind of future we are looking to build — and how robots fit into it.

The direct drive wheel unit consists of a dedicated driver that controls the movement (left) and a pair of direct drive wheels in which the wheels and motor are stored.

KokiUsing the Megatorque Motor as a wheel was a new concept. By doing so, we didn’t have to use reduction gears — the source of noise — thus reducing mechanical sounds. When we designed it, we couldn’t just use the existing parts of the Megatorque Motor as is. We had to invent new ways of employing them with the optimal specifications and costs. We were able to curb costs by carefully devising specifications optimal for the wheel unit and designing circuits and sensors in-house. After having gone through so many ups and downs during development, we were all thrilled when the wheel unit moved for the first time.

KeiRight. New developments inevitably involve mistakes, worries and so much more … but I will never forget that moment of joy I felt when it first moved. That thrill of that moment is what kept me going after that — no matter how hard things got. This was a great experience because everyone on the team got to share in the joy of creating something new and the fun of development and design.

Making Life More Fulfilling for People through the Growing Field of Robotics

In the development of the direct drive wheel unit, the first thought was always for the customer’s happiness with the overall service. The three developers recall how this project brought them new insights.

Kei One of our customers had a problem because they could create a robot but couldn’t make it move. So we had the customer use the direct drive wheel unit in an experiment, and this made the movements the customer wanted possible. I saw the customer’s happiness and became confident that there really is a market for robots like this that people can feel comfortable around. My goal is to help make life more fulfilling — for many people — by creating products that use this direct drive wheel unit. I want to enable them to focus on their work better, or to use a place with greater convenience. We’ve just finished this wheel unit, but I’m ready to expand on this and make a complete service robot, so that we can satisfy all the people who are waiting for NSK to make a robot.

Satoshi We will continue to create the products the market needs, like bearings, of course. But this project also taught us to take the initiative to envision what the world needs and develop something based on that vision. We listened to customer feedback when we exhibited at the International Robot Exhibition 2019, and in 2020, we will take this project to the next phase.

Koki Now we’re moving into the stage where we will refine the wheel unit based on feedback from customers. I really want to see a robots powered by this direct drive wheel unit being used in real — world applications.

Satoshi I’m positive that the robotics field will keep growing. I want to see robots powered by direct drive wheel units supporting daily life in hospitals, libraries and offices in the near future. I hope that this development will be the catalyst that sparks a new robotics market for NSK.